Why Consultants Need to be an Integrated Team Member
Having worked as both a consultant leading a project and a manager hiring consultants, I have success and horror stories to share. What they have in common is the level of integration the consultant has with the project team. The more integrated, the more successful the end outcome.
A lot of time organizations hire consultants because either staff are too busy to do the work or they don’t have the expertise the project requires. Often the consultant is expected to solve a problem or take a project to the finish line, ideally with little input from the client.
Here’s the problem. The consultant, regardless of their experience and expertise, does not know your organization. I’m talking about the unique political potholes, internal culture or nuisances staff navigate every day. Expecting a consultant to deliver a win, without this insider knowledge, is just not possible.
When I’m interviewing perspective clients to determine if I’m the best fit, I look at how integrated I will be with the project team. This doesn’t mean I’m looking to spend 8 hours a day with them, or need a lot of hand holding. Rather, I try to figure out how open staff are to having honest conversations (so I can get the full picture) and what level of ownership they have for the project.
Without this insider knowledge, I’m operating in the dark.
I know some of you are thinking, you’re the consultant, you’re being hired to figure it out. Do your job and get on with it. And yes, sometimes that’s what needs to be done.
But too often, by washing your hands of a project, and leaving it to the consultant, the end result involves tweaking and revisions that are time consuming. Time that could have been minimized by having involvement along the way.
Let me give you an example. As a communications consultant, I often write communications and community engagement plans for large public facing projects or initiatives. Earlier in my career, I would churn out these plans based on my own experience and view of communications.
While these were good plans, they weren’t great plans.
The difference between good and great was tapping into employee and stakeholder knowledge, experience and perspective.
Variety of voices
A few years ago, I added two components to the process – a questionnaire and workshop. While these components do increase the budget and timeline for the plan development, they’ve also resulted in strategies that are on target each and every time.
Why? Because I set aside space early on to get insider knowledge through a written questionnaire (allowing introverts time to reflect) and an in-person workshop (where we talk through various challenges and opportunities as a group).
It’s through asking questions and listening to what is actually being said, that I’m able to have a true understanding of all that’s involved in the project. I’m able to identify potential roadblocks, know how to navigate the political landscape and develop a plan that is realistic for staff to execute.
Most importantly, I’m able to develop relationships that I can tap into throughout the process. I go from being the consultant, to a person with a name, personality and story. I become integrated into the team.
It’s through this integration that I’m able to fully scope out the landscape and deliver a plan that meets the needs of the organization, instead of done in isolation.
I know not every client wants this level of integration. I’ve also learned the hard way this is likely a client I don’t want to work with. Why? Because if the final project misses the mark, or is good but not great, the blame game begins.
This is a tough lesson to learn.
I once had a client that wanted zero involvement in developing the strategy. They spent minimal time briefing me, sent me a couple of documents with a scattering of information, and referred to some strategies I had written for their organization that they wanted me to replicate (but hadn’t been involved in any part of the process).
Since the organization was a regular client of mine, I pushed aside my reservations, did my own research and developed a strategy based on what I understood the problem that needed to be solved.
But I overshot the mark. I created a holistic plan that addressed a bigger picture problem whereas the client was wanting a more focused plan to deal with one issue in isolation.
When it was clear there had been miscommunications, the client halted the conversation and ended the project. No debrief or chance for revisions. Just a complete halt.
Once I got over the shock (as this had never happened to me before), I did my own debrief. Where did the project fall off the tracks? Why did we have two completely different perceived outcomes?
The answer was clear – there was zero integration. I was never integrated into the project, but rather asked to deliver a solution without any opportunity to clearly understand the true issue.
This costly lesson (in both time and severed relationships) reinforced the importance of ensuring clients see me as a consultant as an integrated part of the team versus a magic bullet or a scapegoat.
Integration for the win
For those of you who are consultants, how much do you value integration as part of your decision-making process when saying yes to projects? And how integrated are you as you work through the project?
And for those of you who hire consultants, I ask you to reflect on the role you play in integrating a consultant into the project team or organization. Are you asking them to solve the problem in isolation, then frustrated when a project is slightly off target? Or are you owning your role in ensuring the consultant understands the culture, nuisances and is able to develop relationships they can tap into as needed?
As for me, I know that only through being integrated into the project team or organization, am I able to provide an excellent outcome. This integration also means clients can count on me 100% of the time to support their needs.